A victory for civil rights
Tuesday's overwhelming House of Commons vote in favour of allowing same-sex couples to marry is a historic step towards equal rights for a minority that, within recent memory, was persecuted and criminalised. Further legislative obstacles remain in the path of marriage equality in England and Wales and public opinion remains divided on the issue.
Indeed, more than half of the Conservative parliamentary party voted against the measure, despite the backing given to it by prime minister David Cameron. All the unionist Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland voted against the Bill too, although the SDLP and Alliance MPs voted in favour.
Despite the intensity of much of the opposition to marriage equality, the trend throughout the developed world is unmistakable. In his inauguration last month, President Barack Obama identified marriage rights for gays and lesbians as a legislative priority, citing the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, which launched the gay rights movement in the United States, in the same breath as the Selma marches for black civil rights in 1965 and the Seneca Falls women's rights convention of 1848. Eleven countries already allow same-sex couples to marry and many states that allow civil partnerships are now considering the final step towards full marriage rights.
The issue of marriage equality will be debated at the constitutional convention in Dublin Castle in April and the arguments on both sides are already well-ventilated. Those who favour equality do so in the name of justice and fairness, arguing that only full equality under the law can protect gays and lesbians from discrimination and allow them to be valued as full, equal citizens of the State. Opponents warn that redefining marriage to include same-sex unions would undermine "traditional marriage" between a man and a woman and could force religious groups to perform weddings that are contrary to their beliefs.
The concept of "traditional marriage" is a dubious one, implying that the institution has remained unchanged since time immemorial. In fact, civil marriage has undergone important changes during the past century alone, from the recognition of married men and married women as equal before the law to legislation allowing divorce and remarriage. Religious groups do need protection, however, and the Bill passed in the House of Commons this week enables same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies and allows religious organisations to opt in, while protecting those that do not. Religious ministers may refuse to perform gay wedding ceremonies if to do so would conflict with their faith.
It is a wise solution, ensuring that equal marriage should not come at the cost of freedom of faith, nor freedom of faith at the cost of civil rights.